Those who want to show that women have wielded great influence in the Catholic Church would do well to bring the life of St Jane Frances de Chantal to public attention. St Jane Frances worked closely with the hierarchy of bishops to achieve her goals and to make life easier for women who want to enter religious life – it’s her feast day today
St Jane Frances de Chantal was a Frenchwoman born in 1572. At the age of 21, she married her sweetheart, Baron de Chantal and together they had four children. Widowed at the age of 28, she decided not to remarry. She had an extremely busy life, managing the estate of her late husband, raising her children and also giving food and nursing care to the poor people who lived nearby. Four years after her husband’s death, St Jane Frances met St Francis de Sales, he was bishop of Geneva at the time, and they struck up a close friendship.
St Francis de Sales acted as her spiritual director, and supported her vocation to religious life and her ambition to become foundress of a new and daring religious order which would accept women who were turned away by other convents because of failing health, physical disability or their age. On at least one occasion she accepted a woman in her 80s and on another occasion she accepted a blind lady.
After making sure her children were provided for, St Jane Frances departed for Annecy, an alpine town in south-eastern France where she founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
For its time, it was radical; the sisters were more like Mother Theresa than the nuns of their day who usually were cloistered. After about eight years, there were too many objections to the nuns of the Visitation being too involved in active service and St Francis de Sales decided to make it a cloistered community.
St Francis de Sales masterpiece, Introduction to the Devout Life, is still a popular text among Catholics who want to go deeper into holiness. But a lesser known body of spiritual direction are the letters of St Jane Frances. Through her interesting letters, we get a good sense of her character. In one she discusses a potential love match for her daughter, in another she is profusely thanking another nun for her prayers. One nice surprise is that St Jane Frances’s character comes across as genuinely kind and gentle. Too often nuns from a distant century are portrayed as cold-blooded fanatics who made the lives of other nuns hell.
St Francis de Sales’ decision to make the order a cloistered one did not inhibit its growth and by the time St Francis de Sales dies, there were 13 houses. 73 more houses had sprung up by the time St Jane Frances died, bringing the grand total to 86 houses founded in her lifetime.